Bill Bowerman was a complex and multifaceted man. As a husband and father, teacher and coach, and inventor and innovator, he touched many people's lives over his long career. Read tributes and writings from those who knew him best.
Watching from the Medford bleachers in Bill's senior year was a fourteen-year-old sophomore, Barbara Young, who had just transferred from a cultured, all-girls prep school in Chicago. "I'd never even been in a school with men teachers," she would say. "Or boys running around loose." Back East her father had taken her to University of Chicago games, where she'd cared more about the fur coats and chrysanthemums. "But in Medford, I got to see these great big creatures in action, and I confess I exulted!"
She was not alone. "My Aunt Margaret and my folks were in the 'orchard crowd'-doctors and professional people who had pear ranches. Several had girls of my age, so after one football game, there was a dinner party. The Roberts girls gave it, at the Colony Club, where only the upper echelon belonged."
In her trepidation, Barbara skipped the football game to get a private dance lesson: "I'd hated dance school in Chicago-all white gloves and the boys and girls standing across a vast room, and the fear of not being chosen, and the fear of being chosen."
The Medford party dined at elegantly chic tables, each seating four. Maids distributed plates weighty with prime rib, baked potatoes, Waldorf salad.
"Just behind me, at another table," Barbara remembered years later, "was this football player. What caught my eye was that every time a maid would bring him a dinner, he'd thank her, and when she'd gone, he'd slip it onto his knee. Then he'd smile a beatific smile at another and get another dinner."
The boy, a tall senior named Bowerman, ended up with a meal on each knee and one on the table, all three of which he wolfed down by dessert, neatly stacking the plates before him.
When the dancing began, the boy came over. Standing there, he wordlessly offered Barbara his hand. She took it. Nothing at dance school had prepared her for what came next: "He was strong and sensitive. At first it was wonderful. But it was dead silence. Sepulchral silence. Now I know he grew up in a silent home.
I was shy, but at least we talked in my family." Finally she couldn't stand it any more. "You must have been hungry," she whispered.
"Oh, no," he said. "Ate dinner before I came."
They danced on without another word. "He was always a great dancer," Barbara would remember, "always musical, always a graceful athlete." Barbara's nerves melted away and were replaced by a feeling new to her experience. "More than anything in high school I wanted acceptance. On that floor, with his hand at my back guiding me, I'd never felt so relaxed. I felt unconditionally accepted." When the music stopped, the two youngsters parted with awkward nods and rejoined their tables.
In the beginning, Barbara would say, she and Bill shared a similar sort of yearning: "At that age, we had absolutely no self-esteem. Both of us had been raised by stern parents. My mother had been brought up a hard-shell Baptist, all hell and damnation. Bill revered his mother, but she was full of expectations, and all Fossil had urged him never to let her down, because she'd had it so hard. I had seen him in classes, in the halls, and I remember that hungry look in his eye, that lonely look."
That first meeting did foretell a small part of their future. Bill and Barbara would love each other wholly, even as they remained mystified by each other. Their dance would often be as wordless as its first steps, each wondering what the other could possibly be thinking. But Barbara's uncommon gift was to be aware. It was just like her to notice the shenanigans of some guy sitting with his back to her. It was also like her to find the phrases to engrave an experience in memory, to name, to clarify. She would be the perfect balance to Bill's tactical taciturnity.
Listening to these litanies of the great, it dawned on Bill that Hayward had enabled, witnessed, or photographed about two-thirds of Olympic track and field history. There was no more experienced village elder, if the village was the Olympic one. Hayward urged his men to shoot for the Games as "the ultimate fellowship, the highest target."
When Bill appealed to Hayward for help with his football speed, Hayward again chuckled at how oddly he ran. Bowerman leaned forward and had such a hitch in his stride that teammates called him Hopalong. Hayward explained that you don't change your form by just holding yourself differently, but by strengthening the muscles you need to be more effective. He gave him "high-knee, fastleg" drills that made him mimic a high-stepping drum major until his groin seized up. Gradually Bill began to sprint with his knees and chest higher, his hips tucked under him.
"Because of what he taught," Bowerman would say, "I went from one of the slowest players on the football team to the second fastest, behind only Paul Starr, our great sprinter."
For such drills, Hayward simply threw Bill in with his 1931 runners, who happened to be the best Hayward ever had. Besides Starr, they included Ralph Hill, a quietly confident distance runner from potato country near Klamath Falls.
Bowerman liked Hill immediately. He'd cheered him on to a near world record 4:12.4 in the mile the year before (Nurmi had run 4:10.4 in 1923). He also observed the long runs that Hill took for stamina and saw how Hayward gave him different track workouts to build two very different things, raw speed and the ability to sustain it.
Hill was the first world-class miler Bowerman ever met. Recalling that Hayward had said Bowerman himself might be a 440 man one day, Bill ran what he felt was a hard lap. When the nausea and burn ebbed, he was able to lift his watch to his eyes: 63 seconds. "Just so's you'll know," Hayward chortled. "Ralph goes that fast for four laps."
"When I coached milers," Bowerman would later say, "I affected to be nonchalant about what they could do. But that took years. I was staggered by what Ralph could do. It just seemed impossible."
The force with which the young Bowerman connected with Hayward certainly had aspects of finding a long-lost father. Bill was grateful to have a guide to good form in his career as well as his stride. But he also came to revere Hayward because he was logical. It is not just the condescension of hindsight to say that sport in the 1930s was a miasma of ignorance. Doc Spears was no exception in putting arbitrary authority ahead of common sense. Hayward, by contrast, looked for the underlying reasons. He'd applied almost all his lessons to himself. He could whisper to a vaulter or jumper or hurdler the tiny changes that made all the difference. This fit with Bill's growing interest in the sciences and what we now term biomechanics, how the levers are moved by the muscles, how the body, properly aligned, performs at its optimum.
Hayward was a model healer-half doctor, half inventor. Bowerman began to mold himself into one too, with the same eagerness that he did high-knee drills. "I learned from the master," he would say. Hayward soon thought of Bowerman as a colleague.
The day after the new four-mile relay record was set in May 1962, Bowerman had written Lydiard and proposed they get the Oregon team down to New Zealand in December and January to race during the Kiwis' summer season. Lydiard was all for it. Both began planning, but each cautioned the other that their respective amateur track governing bodies-in Bowerman's case, the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States-would be obstacles. Bill was the first to be right.
Amateur rules and rulers had permeated Bowerman's sport since 1888. Each year, college coaches trained their athletes to a summer peak-and then were required to hand them over to AAU officials for international competition. This meant not just the Olympics or Soviet-American dual meets, but any competition for which an athlete stuck a toe out of the country.
Bowerman would liken the AAU to a dictatorship. Its governing board of twenty-five had a representative from each sport's association and one or at most two from the NCAA. "I was on both the AAU and United States Olympic Committee boards," Bowerman would say, "but the AAU always had the majority. That was written right into both AAU and USOC constitutions."
Bowerman, suspicious of any bureaucracy, was hardly a natural politician. Yet he was magnetic at meetings of his peers, the college coaches. He was respected for producing good athletes and he respected other coaches who did the same, especially those who taught as well as they recruited. In the 1950s, after he had coached Dellinger and Bailey, he was elected president of the National Track Coaches Association (which included high school and junior college coaches as well). He and his colleagues felt they had less and less ability to look out for the welfare of their best athletes.
Bowerman and the coaches nursed a plan whereby American track might shake off the yoke of AAU domination. Finally, in 1961, after being denied yet another request for AAU votes proportionate to their programs, they voted to form the US Track and Field Federation (USTFF) to try to supplant the AAU. Since colleges produced almost all the finest athletes and had all the facilities, the coaches felt sure they could prove to the IAAF that they should be given the chance to govern what they created.
First, they quietly lined up top Olympians for support. That summer, some of Bill's correspondence took on a subversive, burn-this-message tone. In August 1961, he wrote to Ed Temple of Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University, coach of Wilma Rudolph. "This is confidential," he began. "A group of coaches is considering forming a United States Track and Field Federation. Please do not discuss this with the newspapers or anyone else. What we wish to know is will you as one of the coaches in the NCAA be interested in joining us and would Wilma Rudolph be interested in joining? The athletes who have already indicated interest are Rafer Johnson, Bill Dellinger, Max Truex, Hal Connolly, and Parry O'Brien. We need Wilma and we need you." Both Temple and Rudolph were supportive.
Bowerman kept Arthur Lydiard in the loop. "You may or may not know we are having a down and out fight with our national AAU here in the US," he wrote in September. "I am one of a committee of five coaches that has led and instigated this. Arthur, the objective of the college coaches is to take international competition and running of track and field completely away from the AAU." The AAU obviously wasn't going to sit still for this, so the coaches were casting about for a way to demonstrate AAU malfeasance to higher authorities. He already had letters, Bowerman told Lydiard, indicating "that Dan Ferris ... was down-right dishonest." Ferris apparently had assured an American ambassador in one country that a certain athlete would be invited there, but had not sent it on to the athlete himself "and tried to send one of his own pick" instead, as Bowerman wrote. "He [Ferris] denied that he knew anything about it, but I have a copy of the Ambassador's letter. Also his reply to the Ambassador. I need copies of your information because if necessary, we're going to take this to our United States Senator for investigation purposes."
The senator in question was Wayne Morse, a Bowerman friend who'd been dean of the Oregon Law School when Bill was in college. In another possible tack, Bill said in a memo for the record that the new federation hoped to use the US State Department to increase their clout with the international bodies.
In the fall of 1961, the coaches' group, with the support of the top fifty track athletes and the NCAA as a whole, announced the federation's formation. At first, the AAU treated it as the bleating of a disgruntled few. "This uproar," Dan Ferris fumed, "has been stirred up by about five percent of the track coaches." In fact, when polled, over ninety percent supported the federation's challenge. "This is a power play by the NCAA," Pincus Sober, chairman of the AAU's track and field committee, thundered, "to take over amateur athletics in this country."
"The NCAA," answered its executive secretary, Walter Byers, "has no desire to control all track and field activity in the United States. We do feel that we should have proportionate representation on any governing body. We do not have that under AAU rule." Until they did, the body would stick with its coaches.
The Byers quote appeared in the January 22, 1962, Sports Illustrated story by Tex Maule entitled "The Coaches Take Over." Maule made it seem almost a fait accompli. "Track meets are run on college facilities by college coaches," Bowerman was quoted as saying. "They [the AAU] talk about their junior development program. They don't have any. Do you know of any track in this country owned and operated by the AAU?"
Maule outlined the USTFF's plans to hold its own competing national championships at the LA Coliseum the same weekend as the AAU nationals in Walnut. Hal and Olga Connolly, Jim Beatty, and Dyrol Burleson all said they would compete at the Coliseum. "By the time this thing is set up," Olympic shot-put champion Parry O'Brien was quoted as saying, "the AAU will realize it can't beat the federation. It would be a stupid and senseless thing for the AAU not to join the track and field federation."
"If the AAU survives at all," Maule concluded. "It will be as a considerably weakened member of several larger organizations."
Maule's prediction did not come to pass. The coaches' "takeover" had depended on showing the fairness of their cause, and they had done that well. But the AAU didn't have to prove anything to anybody, didn't need to worry about being caught in double-dealing, didn't even need the goodwill of a single athlete. All the AAU had to do was pull rank. It simply passed along word from Avery Brundage that the IOC and IAAF would never bend, would never admit the new group, and there was no force on earth that could compel them to.
The athletes knew how true that was. The plain fact remained that any athlete who wanted to make the US team for international competition had to qualify through AAU meets. Burley, Beatty, and all who had come out for the federation had to run those meets or be reduced to running time trials for the rest of their careers. The coaches didn't have anything like the leverage for which Bill had searched. Athletes and coaches couldn't sue. They couldn't do a thing, because Brundage and the IOC answered to no one.
It probably wasn't sheer coincidence that the AAU then tried to keep one of the ringleaders of this failed revolt from taking his four-mile-relay team to race in New Zealand. First the AAU informed Dyrol Burleson that he would not be going to New Zealand unless he raced in the 1962 AAU national championships, a week after the NCAA meet. Burley'd had no plans to run the AAU meet at all, because a class he had to attend fell on the day of the preliminary heats for the mile. Bowerman tried to finesse the issue by putting Burley in the AAU three-mile instead, but, as Bill would put it, "that just made for more misery." As he would describe it in a letter to Lydiard, "Burley went through the motions, but he was in no mood at all to run. He dropped out at the end of two miles."
Meanwhile, Lydiard drafted a formal request for the specific Oregon runners who had broken the Kiwis' record and for their coach. At Bowerman's prompting, he included Leo Harris as official team manager. (Harris had been hearing from Bowerman for so long about the glories of New Zealand that he wanted to see it for himself.) Lydiard sent the invitation to the AAU office in New York, sent a copy to Bowerman, and awaited further orders.
Bowerman, once burned, crafted a plan to bring in real muscle. When it got to be November and he still hadn't received anything from the AAU, he called Lydiard. "I don't think we're going to hear," Bill said, "so why don't you send a letter and a copy to our governor, Mark Hatfield, and another to our State Department?"
Lydiard did just that. Governor Hatfield was more than a fan. He was a javelin official at Oregon meets, though he never liked it made public. Prepped by Bowerman about Dan Ferris's tactics, Hatfield and a State Department official called the AAU. As Bill would tell the story, the callers asked Ferris, "Are we or are we not sending these fine young men down to race the New Zealanders who have requested them?"
Ferris said, "Well, uh, we have a better team of other runners."
Hatfield replied, "Oh, really? Has somebody broken Oregon's world record? Somebody better than Archie San Romani Jr.? Better than Keith Forman's 3:58? Better than Dyrol Burleson's 3:57?"
"The AAU was pissed," Bowerman would recall with satisfaction. "But there was nothing they could do. We were cleared to go. They even let Leo Harris be our mission chief."
Excerpted from: Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by Kenny Moore. Copyright (c) 2006 by Kenny Moore. Rodale Inc., Emmaus, PA. Used with permission. www.rodalestore.com
Barbara and Bill were high school sweethearts — a love affair that lasted more than 70 years. When he died in 1999, she expressed her thoughts about their lifetime together.
Press play to hear audio of Barbara reading the letter:
To all of you who knew Bill,
I have been encouraged to write my thoughts about Bill. But how does one distill the experiences of a lifetime to a few thin words? As I ponder this question, deep, rich experiences keep welling up without allowing the words to gel.
Bill was an extremely complex person, and with more than 70 years experience, you might think I'd pretty much figured him out. Not true! And maybe that was what was so delightful about all our years together; there was always uncertainty, unpredictability, a kind of in-balance off-balance nature about this person who touched so many people.
How did he teach, cajole, inspire those he trained to perform beyond the stretches of their own imaginations? Or stretch their imaginations so they believed they could? Was it his studied strategy? Was it his personality? Luck? Perseverance? Idealism? Maybe it was a combination of all things.
One thing I can say with certainty — he was focused. I think this was a fundamental of how he was able to accomplish things, and how he was able to connect with people. He would bring an intensity of interest to a subject or to a person, and it would certainly elevate the outcome.
I knew this focus well, because in his active occupation as a teacher, he would be so single-minded in certain areas that he was sometimes impenetrable as a regular person. Not in a narrow-minded way. Not in a negative way. Just so totally devoted to the outcome of his pursuit that all energy and focus went to the heart of the pursuit. I knew it, because as a wife and mother of his children, I was often left to handle the areas of life that were not in his focus zone.
For these years, these events, to all of you who have been part of this wonderful time, thank you. Thank you for these friendships, the efforts, the success and the rewards of a fascinating kaleidoscope that have made these times so incredible.
Bill coached football and track at Medford High School in the late 1930s and 1940s. When he left to serve in World War II, the students dedicated their 1942 yearbook to him.
Remember us? We are the student body of Medford High School. We are the ones who so often listened to your homespun yarns and tall tales of Fossil during pep assemblies — stories with a moral for the old morale. Some of us are football players who learned most of what we know from you... You coached us into a team of state champions in '39 and runners-up in '40 and '41. We miss you much. Others of us are trackmen... You taught us the fundamentals of the sport, and made us practice until we made fine showings at all meets and took top honors at Hayward Relays. We miss you too.
Some of us are boys who don't excel in sports, but from your physical education classes we learned the meaning of good sportsmanship as well as its value. Some of us are just students who laughed at your jokes and various feats of skill in assemblies. We also miss you.
In short, Bill, the whole school misses you. You always had a smile and a friendly wisecrack for everyone. The faculty misses you as much as the student body, but we all feel the same — we're proud of you, and if you can turn out fighting men in the Army like the fighting teams of Medford High, you're where you belong and good luck to you all the way.